Unleashing the Muses

by Editors


Unleashing the Muses: Or, How Angry Calypso Trumps Little Fish

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

In a recent job interview I had the following question posed to me: “What would you change about the field [of Art History] if you could? Not just your area of specialty, mind you, but the entire discipline?”

The answer was not hard for me to find, as it is right at the tip of my tongue.

I answered: “Fifty years ago Art History (or, we might say the Humanities in general) was a part of mainstream consciousness. Books written by scholars were read by an educated public, and the tenets of culture were understood to be relevant to a full life, to membership in a shared human experience. Since the advent of Semiotics and the relativization of culture, the Humanities have been seen as “elitist,” “irrelevant,” or both. Nowadays most people live almost entirely in the moment, in their own construct of reality; the past is dead, and they ask what purpose would it serve to learn from it? In a shrinking world, I believe that as academics—or more broadly, humanists—we bear an increasingly urgent responsibility to express the common thread of the human experience: one poetically woven by the acknowledged masters of literature, art and music.”

All that on the tip of my tongue? Yep. Let’s just say that after explaining my choice of Art History as a profession to almost everyone I’ve met in the last seventeen years (including my practical-minded, incredulous Yankee parents), I’ve had many years to justify the necessity of the humanities to an ever-more skeptical audience. Perhaps this is why, in reading Stanley Fish’s regular column in the New York Times on January 6, I was blown away by a “colleague’s” utterly nihilistic approach to the Humanities.

It was the article’s title that immediately piqued my interest: Will the Humanities Save Us? “Of course!” I thought. Then, in his article Fish proceeded to show just how far from the course of civilization his mature mind has wandered. For example, he summarizes the article with the question, “What good are the humanities?” His “honest answer”: none whatsoever.

For Professor Fish, like many of his online commentators, because the humanities don’t bring esteem, create tangible objects, nor turn that all-important profit, he doesn’t believe that they can be justified to the mainstream. Though a career academic himself, Fish never explains what binds these fields together other than their lack of lucre and prestige. He writes: “Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

They don’t bring about effects in the world? Other than selfish pleasure? Really?

As you might suspect by now—perhaps after reading some of my Bread and Circus posts—I heartily disagree. For the scant ten years that I’ve been teaching I can’t tell you how many students have thanked me at the end of a semester of Survey to let me know that Art History–with its robust combination of all the sister arts–served them as the key to unlocking the complicated visual and social culture that surrounds them everyday. Contrary to Fish’s contentions, most undergraduates are giddy to finally know why things look as they do, that there are orders of architecture and levels of rhetoric, that they have the power to unlock the cultural heritage in their midst—eventually even to understand how our Post-Modern world has occasionally inverted or rejected the past. Though they are neophytes, even undergraduates have the sense to acknowledge that such perspective requires the broad background in historical and visual knowledge that a Humanities education affords one.

Though admittedly I’m a bit eccentric, I found myself asking why in his populist writing Professor Fish never plumbed the reasons why the Japanese love Mozart, or why Americans cannot get enough of Egyptian mummies. Why is it, for example, that a young Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa, could turn Macbeth into a samurai movie (Throne of Blood, 1957), and roughly a decade later Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood to turn his Yojimbo back into a spaghetti Western if not for a shared human experience?

More to the point, Fish could have explained for the layperson why the poetic voicing of universal human urges might give our tiny planet some common ground. What exactly are the humanities to Professor Fish? Nothing more than archaic General Education requirements? Perhaps his time in academic administration has eroded his sense of Campbellian bliss.

Maybe I watch too many movies, but after reading Fish (in my fired-up, fevered imagination) I envisioned gung-ho humanists like myself in the role of the band of pirates in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, releasing a changeable, ferocious goddess upon him and his ilk. Not the nereid Calypso (though she certainly knows how to control “fish”), but rather the sisterhood of nine Classical Muses: Calliope, the muse of epic poetry; Clio, muse of history; Erato, muse of erotic verse; Euterpe, muse of music and lyric poetry; Melpomene, muse of tragedy; Polyhymnia, muse of sacred verse; Terpsichore, muse of chorale and dance; Thalia, muse of comedy; and finally, Urania, muse of astronomy.

Is the scorn of nine jilted women overkill? Probably not. After all, while Disney’s Calypso only had to undo the abuses of moral corruption and greed caused by the East India Company, we humanists need to undo decades of similar corrosion at the hands of a whole generation of soured and bitter academics who’ve imploded the cultural capital bestowed upon them by the giants who preceded them.

In sum, while Professor Fish has been an academic for ten years longer than I’ve been on this planet, I am convinced that he and his generation of scholars have dropped the ball. In fact, I believe that the cycles of history will prove that they should be lumped in with the mouldering Scholastic scholars of the Fourteenth Century who woke up one day to find that they’d been replaced by the fresh-faced eager humanists of the Renaissance. Huzzah!

Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.